Hathras: Making a mockery of the idea of justice
There is so much noise over the horror of what has happened in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh (UP), that it is difficult to believe that a week ago, the family of the 19-year-old Dalit victim was running from town to town, hospital to hospital, police station to police station, ignored, overlooked, forgotten.
I first met her family when they arrived in Delhi to seek medical help at Safdarjung hospital. Her father and brother were hapless and broken. “Take me home,” the woman had said to her brother Sandeep, younger by just a year. Those were her last words. By the morning, she was dead.
Sandeep, employed at a pathology laboratory and thus, a frontline worker in these coronavirus pandemic times, said many things to me, some from rage, some from sorrow. But what really stays with me is his response to my question on how they coped over the last fortnight. “My sister was raped on September 14,” he said softly, “but it’s only after her death that anyone has bothered to give us attention. Till now, for politicians and for the media, we were invisible.”
The Hathras rape — and despite the sudden counter-claim by the UP police, I will call it exactly that because it was in the dying testimony of the victim — has represented the failure of every institution in India. Whether it is the police, the bureaucracy, the politicians — we have all failed.
As I spoke to Sandeep, there was a sudden swarm of politicians eager to get onto the camera, jostling for their five minutes of fame. These were the same people who had not bothered to give this family — the father is a daily wager and the mother works at home — an iota of their attention all these days.
From being on the margins of public attention, Hathras is now in danger of being reduced to a noisy, unfeeling spectacle.
The egregious behaviour of the UP police has been the most brazen. The undercover cremation of this young woman, forcibly executed by the police by keeping her parents out, was just the first illustration of callous unprofessionalism. Lawyers and senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officers say that for a senior police officer to give a statement that “no rape took place” and make a forensics report public goes against all tenets of a rape investigation.
For a moment, think of this young woman strapped to a hospital bed, strangled with her own dupatta, her limbs paralysed, her tongue cut, fighting valiantly to live. The gang rape charge was her testimony in her dying hours. She named the four men who she said did this to her. Her brother told me they found her lying “in a pool of blood with no clothes on”.
If indeed, there are gaps, a complete investigation, done quietly and with dignity, could have established that. Now, it will be very difficult for anyone to believe anything the state police says about this case.
Meanwhile, rape has become the predictable political pawn.
In the competitive finger-pointing between states, no one actually cares even a tiny bit about women, about Dalits or, indeed, about justice. The government’s own data points underscore the inanity of this whataboutery. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics released just a few days ago tell us that 87 rapes are reported every day in India and that crimes against women are up by 7.3%. Remember, this is only counting the women who actually decide to speak out. For anyone who thinks that sexual violence is not compounded by class and caste, here is a fact; 10 Dalit women are raped every day, making up 11% of the reported cases.
UP tops the list of crimes against women and the girl child. Rajasthan tops the list of states with the most number of rapes; 18% of all rape cases in UP are that of Dalit women, compared to 9% in Rajasthan. A third of all rapes of Dalit women have been reported from Rajasthan and UP. So, everyone should spare us the political slugfest because it is just a convenient and noisy excuse to not do anything to make India safer for women.
The institutional response to sexual violence is critical. On this score, the UP police has covered itself in shame. At every turn, they have robbed the family of its agency to make key decisions.
I am not a big fan of politicians turning tragedy into opportunity, but I believe that which politician a victim’s family wants to meet is entirely their decision. Blocking Opposition politicians such as Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi from making a trip to Hathras and shoving them around on the expressway is just wrong. It’s for the family, not the police, to turn the Gandhis away, should they so wish.
So far, we are making a mockery of the idea of justice. Soon, this headline will fade and we will all move on. Till the next horror strikes us. And it will.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal